Can movie theaters survive the coronavirus? Filmmakers and cinema owners weigh in
Actress Brea Grant (Heroes, After Midnight) was finally ready to make her mark as a filmmaker. Her debut efforts, writing Lucky and writing-directing 12 Hour Shift, were selected to premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival, respectively.
So then you see what happens next: Her dreams were put on (possibly permanent) hold when both events were canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. "Even talking about it now feels like a selfish act," she says, acknowledging her loss against the backdrop of a deadly global pandemic. "I definitely at first experienced [the cancellations] as something that I felt was happening to me personally, but by the time the Tribeca news came, obviously the rest of the world was experiencing it in the same way. It felt like, 'Oh we're all in this together I guess.'"
It's true that filmmakers like Grant aren't alone. The film festival circuit is one of many distribution and exhibitor arms of the movie business to be affected by the current crisis. Production has ceased on currently-shooting films while the release schedule has been virtually wiped clean for the next few months as studios push back blockbusters like No Time to Die, Wonder Woman 84, Black Widow, and Fast & Furious 9.
In the U.S. and around the globe, cinemas have gone literally dark as part of a worldwide attempt to halt further spread of the virus. Patrick Corcoran, Chief Communications Officer at the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), says, "99-point-something percent" of cinemas in America are now closed. "Some drive-ins are open and doing okay, primarily because they distance you anyway," he continues. But some of those may have to close as well, depending on what local governments' advice is. "Essentially the industry is shut down."
The situation is understandably alarming for cinema-owners and their employees. "Our members are out of business," says Corcoran. "[They] can’t pay their employees, they have no revenue coming in, they can’t pay their bills — whether it’s their leases or mortgages or debt payments or their suppliers."
Filmmakers have started pointing out the threat that the crisis represents to the big screen experience. Some have encouraged film fans to do what they can to help.
In an article penned for Empire, Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver director Edgar Wright extolled the virtues of cinema-going, pleading with the similar-minded to assist. "Before this crisis, I could, like many, appreciate the convenience of watching movies at home, but deep down for me, really experiencing a movie meant getting my arse off the sofa, going to the cinema, sitting down with friends or strangers and appreciating the flickering art (or trash) up on the big screen," wrote Wright, who as a teenager worked as a projectionist at his own local cinema in the U.K. "Since big-screen exhibition has fought in recent years to combat the comforts of home cinema, the climb back from this shuttering of picture palaces may be tougher than ever, especially for many independent cinemas that you may cherish."
Wright offered some examples of remedy, like buying memberships to theaters and theater chains where offered, purchasing gift cards, and donating where you can. "You’ll feel better for having helped now than if you later found your local church of cinema had been forced to close for good."
The Washington Post recently published an op-ed by The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception filmmaker Christopher Nolan, who urged legislative action baked into a financial stimulus package. "The movie business is about everybody: the people working the concession stands, running the equipment, taking tickets, booking movies, selling advertising and cleaning bathrooms in local theaters. Regular people, many paid hourly wages rather than a salary, earn a living running the most affordable and democratic of our community gathering place," he wrote. "Our nation’s incredible network of movie theaters is one of these industries, and as Congress considers applications for assistance from all sorts of affected businesses, I hope that people are seeing our exhibition community for what it really is: a vital part of social life, providing jobs for many and entertainment for all."
The op-ed was part of NATO's own attempt to put pressure on Congress to provide relief. "We were in conversation with [Nolan] before he wrote it and knew what he was going to say. He's been a great ally to the movie theaters. He contacted us and wanted to know what he could do and we pointed him in the direction of The Washington Post for a reason, because they’re [in] our nation’s capital," Corcoran told EW. "What [our members] are looking for is essentially the ability to access capital. They’re not getting a bail-out from the administration. What we want are loan guarantees and the loans will be paid back, but to bridge between now and when theaters reopen so that they can pay their bills.
"Failure to act right now will exacerbate what’s already a bad situation. You can’t rebuild businesses that have died."
At this point, no one knows how quickly theaters will reopen — or if audiences will return when they do. America can look to China for some clues as to what the future immediately after quarantines lifts may look like. According to Screen Daily, 507 cinemas had opened in China as of March 23, in provinces that were least affected by the coronavirus; tickets were free or at a reduced price, and theaters showed previously released Chinese titles with box office bonafides. The take-home grosses were very low, however.
"They're bringing older movies back into movie theaters to test the waters and reintroduce people gently to it," as Corcoran put it; the executive, however, was adamant that people will return to cinemas in the U.S. "When we’re back open and have movies, we’ll be fine. It’s not like people are going to say, 'You know, I really really enjoyed that time we were cooped up in the house and couldn’t leave.'"
It is easy to imagine No Time to Die and Fast & Furious 9 doing well when they are eventually released. But what about indies and other smaller-scale projects? "We've been in contact with both the large and the small distributors [about] deferring their releases rather than bypassing the cinema altogether," says Corcoran. "We are obviously concerned. We want a range of movies, we don’t want just the big movies. Because there are lots of different audiences that combine in different ways to make up the movie-going audience. We need that range of things. We never want to say to people this is something that you can’t get in the movie theater."
For now, filmmakers might be feeling like Brea Grant. "I'm hoping, crossing fingers, there will be more festivals later this year and the films will get out into the world," she says. "I’ve just been getting up really early and writing every day. I’m sort of like, 'Well, maybe no one will ever see these movies I made but I can at least have something else that people can read when they start to come out of hiding.' That’s one of the goals at this point."
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